Effective Auction Marketing

By Dan Main – CA Global Partners

This past June, I gave a presentation at the IAA Europe event in London on the topic of “Effective Auction Marketing.”  During my 20-year career in auctions, I’ve had the opportunity to take some fairly obscure items to market – from nearly two hundred Humvees to the microphone used annually to record the Queens Christmas Day Message.  I understand the challenges auctioneers face working under pressure to realise the highest possible price, often in the shortest possible timeframe!  Most of what I’ve written below is what I’ve learned through online resources on marketing and, crucially, through testing out the theory.  Which means you can too.  This is a pretty good principle to follow in general – when in doubt, do some research and test.  The industry moves pretty quickly, so keeping up to date with trends is also important (it’s only fall and I’ve already changed my view on some of the things I expressed in June).

There is a lot I don’t cover below, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a viable method, it just means we may not have found a way to make it work.  If you have other tried and tested methods, I’d love to hear them.

Auction marketing is a tough gig.  These are some of the questions I’m going to touch on in this article:

  • How do I know whether a marketing resource will generate bidders?
  • How do I know after the sale what marketing brought bidders, and what didn’t?
  • How do I choose what to measure – what metrics actually effect my bottom line?
  • Is it enough just to look at the “views” an auction has?
  • How can I help more people to find my auction lots naturally through “organic” traffic?
  • How can Facebook, a site seemingly dedicated to cat pictures, questionable news, and ill-informed political arguments, possibly generate buyers for industrial assets? I’ll answer that right here: I don’t know. It just does and it’s cheap. Use it.

The Three Aims of Auction Marketing

Digital marketing for an auction company has three, often hard to balance, aims: (i) we’re generating buyers for our auctions; (ii) we’re trying to attract clients and build brand awareness; and (iii) we’re improving the search engine optimisation (“SEO”) of our website so both buyers and clients can find us organically.  Unless you are new to the market, for most of us our day-to-day priority is finding buyers.  But if we go about this in the right way, we can cover all three of these areas at one time.

If you only do one thing…

OK, SEO is complicated with a myriad of variables affecting visibility.  That said, If you want “just one thing” to cover all three marketing areas, opt for sending out a press release for almost any auction you do that includes your name, your client’s name and a link to your website.  You can use a general distribution service, and it will cost around $1000/€1000 for each release per region (i.e., all of USA or a single European country).  The release will generally market your event to buyers (often those that are hard to reach), showcase your work to clients or prospects, and improve your SEO.  Additionally, you can also choose to send your release to specialist publications at the same time.  If you’ve distributed press releases in the past, chances are, if you search online for your company name (which is the first thing your prospective clients will do), then one of those press releases will show up on the first page of Google, even some of the older ones.

Press releases are generally picked up by a wide range of publications, but it doesn’t do any harm to email target industry publications with the press release too.  If you’re lucky, you can avoid the cost of actually paying that publication for advertising –    especially if the project is newsworthy, and if you give the press release to your biggest target publication as an “exclusive” story before the main release goes out. Some sites also offer the chance for you to upload stories for free, and surprisingly they can perform better than the paid outlets.  Don’t just email the publication and hope for the best.  It doesn’t work – I tried this a few weeks ago and no-one published it.  Follow up with phone calls and be sure to speak to someone to get confirmation they will publish, or if they want a different angle then give them the details.

I don’t want to contradict myself too early in this article – but there is a caveat here. We’ve had some auctions perform extremely well without a press release. As I mentioned above, SEO is complex.  But sending out a press release doesn’t do any harm to brand awareness, and if an auction is or becomes newsworthy, you’ll be glad you did it for a long time to come.

The Nasty, Brutish and Short Life of the Auction Marketeer

I’ve seen some suffering in auction marketing departments.  The project manager marches up to a startled looking marketing graduate (often fairly new to the company given the rapid turnover in this department), vaguely references a few machines, gives them a date of the auction, a budget, and then disappears without so much as a reference to regions, value concentration, potential marketing resources, or any idea of what the machines actually do.  Fast forward to the day of the auction, and if the results aren’t stellar, the poor marketing scapegoat is skewered, possibly fired, and the next fresh-faced graduate is wheeled in with no idea what’s in store for them.

Let’s be clear – marketing professionals around the world are used to acting on research and good data.  They have no knowledge necessarily of the intricacies of the machines.  How would they know that a Mazak VCN-530C vertical machining centre was designed for the European subcontracting manufacturer market?  We need to be extremely specific with our directives, and if we don’t know ourselves, we need to find out.  For our last auction we created a 750-word- long brief for our marketing team for our Facebook campaign alone.  We also gave guidance on the potential publications (online and offline) that could be used and that the marketing executive could reach out to.

Measure Everything

Of course, you don’t need a huge marketing budget, marketing department (or even a dedicated marketing individual) to make a big difference to the success of your marketing.  Many of the best tools are free, some of them may even be inside your existing auction software.

Whoever is responsible, one of their key aims should be recording what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, then, crucially, act on this information. Measuring what has happened in previous auctions (both successful and unsuccessful) is the most important thing you can do to improve your marketing success.  If you’re not measuring, you are throwing money down the drain over and over again.

So what should you measure?  We generally have two sources of information – (i) external and (ii) internal, which break down as follows:

  • External – this is information companies give to you when they provide you with marketing (you can also get this information about your own internal email campaigns, but that is more useful as a health and relevance check of your database, rather than for marketing planning, hence why I haven’t mentioned it here).  Two critical metrics to look at from external sources are: (i) the open rate of emails – percentage of recipients who opened the email; and (ii) the click through rate for emails, banners, socials and PPC – percentage of recipients who clicked on a link in an email or percentage of people who viewed a banner or advert that clicked on it.
  • Internal – this is information you can gather yourself, usually using Google Analytics or your online auction platform.  Some key metrics to examine are: (i) bounce rate (which is an old measure that is being phased out for Engagement) – a “bounce” occurs when someone visits your website and leaves without interacting further with your site (lower bounce rate = better); (ii) engagement (rate and time) – the number of people who ‘engaged’ with your site in some way when they visited, including visiting more pages, playing a video or audio file (in this case higher = better); and (iii) auction software platform information – this depends on your software, but could include referral links (which website or URL a registrant came from, see below), and individual views on lot pages.

When you start measuring these factors, you begin to really understand the quality of the marketing channels you’re paying for and how relevant their audience is to your auction.  If you were just looking at views before, but now you’re looking at bounce rates/engagement rates, you could be in for a shock.  I once saw an expensive marketing resource generate 10,000 views to a website, but the bounce rate was 99% (suggesting none of the views were genuine).

Where did my top bidders come from?

While this can be a difficult question to answer, there are ways to find out.  Some auction software platforms have a referral link against each registrant, telling you the website they visited before they registered.  While this can be very useful, a lot of buyers may come back 2 or 3 times before they actually register, which means you won’t necessarily see where they truly originated.

You can also setup Google Analytics to try and establish this information.  If you have a specific page on your website for registration, for example, that only registrants are likely to have visited, check the sources of traffic to that page, it will give you a concentrated idea of what your most successful marketing channel was.

Diagram 2 shows the referral report from a 2021 auction we held in partnership with Gordon Brothers.  Note the buyer from IndustrialBid who spent £17,000 on a single item!

But by the time I know a resource is bad, I’ve already paid for it!

We’re facing a chicken and egg situation.  We want to measure performance to assess whether a resource is good, but we can only do this after we’ve had an auction, by which time it is too late as we’ve already paid for the resource.  So how do we assess a resource for the first time?  I put this question to a company who provides us with marketing regularly, and their advice was as follows:

“Ask your supplier for a screenshot from their mailing program showing the performance of their last campaign.”

The screenshot is important as it is difficult to fake.  Same as above, the important information is the CTR.  This also means you can look past the size of the database and see how relevant it is.  A CTR of 5% on a list of 1000 is better than a CTR of 0.5% on a list of 5000.  Diagram 3 below shows performance on a recent CAGP campaign (note “Clicks” indicates CTR):

I don’t need to do any of this, I have a Big Buyer Database

I appreciate not everyone shares my views on this, but I don’t believe we can rely fully on a buyer database.  We are seeing more end users buying from auctions than ever before.  Dealers are often priced out of the market.  While equipment dealers are repeat purchasers buying regularly for stock, end users have bigger budgets for individual machines, but much more infrequent requirements.  We can and should reach these end users through our marketing channels to fully maximize the realization, but that means our end user buyer database is likely to contain buyers who may buy less often.

I’m not just making this wild claim without evidence; I once worked on three successful AV & Broadcast auctions over the course of a single summer.  Lots of successful marketing led to what felt like a very healthy buyer database for that asset class.  So for the next AV auction in early autumn, the expectation was that previous customers would make up the bulk of the bidders.  However, this was not the case.  In fact 9 of the 10 biggest buyers only registered in the two weeks before the auction.  Fortunately, we had approached the marketing activity in the same way as before, not intending to just rely on the existing database, and this had paid off in dividends.

We keep measuring and reviewing our buyer sources, because it may be different project-to-project and across sectors.  If your measurements deviate from our experience, then you may want to take a different approach.  The key point here (and in all your marketing) is to measure, not just assume.

Print marketing

I’m not going to comment on whether print marketing is effective or not, that argument will continue to rage on without my input.  That said, we’re talking about measuring things here.  So, if you’re going to use print marketing, find a way to measure it.  Try putting custom URLS or QR codes in your print advertising that appear nowhere else.  That way, if a large amount of traffic (or an important buyer) comes to you from a specific URL you set up, then at least you know it’s working.

How to help buyers and clients find me organically

As I stated above, SEO is very important to auctioneers; it’s a way of helping buyers to find our lots over and above our competitors, and it’s also a way of helping our potential clients find us first.  There are a huge range of free tools out there that you can use to check the SEO performance of your website.  About five minutes into using any of them, you’ll quickly realize you can use them to spy on your competitors’ websites too, so I encourage you to do that!

Moz.com has some great tools, as does ahrefs.com.  This is a whole area of marketing on its own, and there’s a lot of material online, but here are some things we have found work for us.

One of the key measurements of the “quality” of your site by Google and other search engines is shown by your Domain Authority (Moz) or Domain Ranking (Ahrefs).  The higher these rank, the more likely someone is going to find you when they search for something on your site (shown below on the graph as the # of Ranking Keywords).  Diagram 4 below shows this relationship.

The ranks are driven by the number of websites linking to your website, known as “backlinks,” especially sites with other high Domain Rankings.  It’s not hard for an auction company to get a strong figure here – CAGP.com has a Domain Authority of 50, which is as high as some of the companies we pay for marketing.

The great news about these domain rankings is you can do your part in influencing them.  Writing articles that appear on high-ranking websites, issuing press releases, listing your assets on marketplaces can all help.  Be aware though, you need a specific type of link: a FOLLOW link, rather than a NOFOLLOW.  Most press releases only give NOFOLLOW links sadly (though not all).

If you want to see a list of the websites that are linking to your website (or your competitors!), use a free backlink checker like ahrefs.com.  When you find a NOFOLLOW link, you should email the owner of the other website and ask them to change it (especially if you pay them for advertising!).  The worst they can say is “no”!  When you have high quality links to your website, they will contribute to your Domain Ranking for years to come – we still have a site linking to cagp.com from an article in 2001.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope this information empowers you to look under the hood of your marketing efforts and apply to your marketing campaigns, the same kind of detailed thought and analysis that each of us applies in valuing assets to get the deal.  It’s surprising how a little attention to detail can have dramatic effects.